To Read, or Not

It sometimes appear to me amazing how highly people think of textbooks and course books. It makes me feel like writing one; perhaps one that teaches people when they should be using their textbooks. A textbook is basically course material that is used to teach you on a subject and when you have learnt about the stuff, there’s little need to do a wholesale revisit, unless you’re confident you’ve forgotten everything.

Why should you torture yourself by relearning everything you learnt and frustrating yourself with some minor definition deviations your memory have insisted upon and trying to ‘re-memorize’ the ‘right definition’? And more importantly, if you can learn the subject or whatever you’re trying to learn without a textbook, why bother to get one?

A textbook has a couple of main uses, some of which concerns the students and others are mainly preoccupations of teachers and textbook writers. The functions students are usually concerned about are explanation and representations while those teachers are interested is includes those, and in addition, the standardization function. It’s not difficult to see why this is so, students are hoping to learn something from the textbook; the explanations helps them understand and possibly provide them a means of explaining the concepts to themselves and others while the representation gives students a means of expressing the ideas and concept on paper (ie allowing them to take exams).

The teachers would love textbooks for those two facts since they relieve them somewhat of their teaching responsibilities but more importantly, it helps them standardize what their students learn and cope with queries that they might have. This is especially important for more contentious issues in the subject that has yet to be resolved by experts and the syllabus prescribes some default stand on the matter for time being.

As a student, one should see the textbook more as a guide than an authority and use it accordingly. Going through it once and understanding the concepts one seeks to master is basically all that the textbook should offer. A slow learner might revisit it a couple of times to grasp a concept or to master the explanations fully; and occasionally one could browse through it as a reference for the way they represent certain information (in the form of diagrams, charts and such) but it is difficult to gain anything more than that on repeated revisits to the textbook.

The ideal usage of a textbook is to synthesize the stuff from different sources together with it on your notes and chucking them aside when you’re doing your revision – rely just on your personal notes (those that aggregate information from your readings of textbooks, your prescribed readings and lecture notes). Of course, this advice is more for students who revise consistently and are wholly familiar with the content which they’re sitting an exam for.

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